Hawaii Legislature Approves Civil Unions - New Family Law Issues in the Making

In a dramatic last-minute reversal yesterday, the state Legislature sent Governor Linda Lingle a bill legalizing civil unions between any two consenting adults (whether same-sex or not).

House Bill 444 allows any adult couple the same rights and benefits the state provides to those who marry. If the Governor signs the measure, Hawaii would be one of six states giving all the rights of marriage to consenting adults, including same-sex couples, but without calling it marriage. She has not indicated whether she will sign or veto the legislation.

The House vote came yesterday evening after an afternoon spent in caucus and marked with procedural votes that showed supporters had a 31-vote majority with 20 opposed. Thirty-four votes are needed to override a veto.

Island faith leaders reacted to the bill's passage with jubilation or dismay, reflecting conflicting religious beliefs that have heated political dialogue on gay rights for decades. The Rev. Marc Alexander, vicar general of the Catholic diocese, said, "We are disappointed, and we hope and pray the governor will veto the bill, both because of the content—which is marriage in disguise—and because it is poor legislation."

The Rev. John Heidel, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Hawaii, said, "We have a great sense of relief and happiness for all of those people in our community who, in the past, have been denied their civil rights and who can now enjoy full benefits of citizenship."

Catholic Bishop Larry Silva sent lawmakers a letter earlier commending them for not passing the bill and emphasizing the importance of marriage as a union between a man and a woman as "a human institution that goes beyond all religious affiliations."

Legislative opponents from the first vote warned yesterday that even taking the bill up again was political suicide. "This is unfair and untimely," said Rep. Gene Ward (R, Hawaii Kai), who voted against the bill. "This is going to cause chaos in the community."

Now the bill's fate lies with Lingle, who was en route home from California last night.
The measure has a convoluted history. On the final day of the Legislature last year, the bill was pulled from a deadlocked Senate Judiciary Committee, then it was amended, meaning it could not pass in the time allotted. But in January the Senate passed the bill 18-7. The House then postponed a decision "indefinitely" on a controversial voice vote, ordered by House Speaker Calvin Say. The essentially anonymous vote caused both opponents and supporters to criticize Say for hiding the vote. Yesterday's action was seen as a reversal.

"We are supposed to do what is right instead of worrying about re-election," said Sen. Michelle Kidani (D, Mililani-Waipio). But there are likely to be political repercussions. Kidani acknowledged that campaigning this year "will be more difficult."

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